Size Mat­ters

ProPhoto - - FIRST FRAME - Paul Bur­rows, Edi­tor

The ar­rival of Canon’s 50 megapix­els res­o­lu­tion

D-SLRs (see news this is­sue) raises a num­ber of ques­tions, par­tic­u­larly for the mak­ers of dig­i­tal medium for­mat cam­era sys­tems, but also in re­la­tion to the cur­rent de­bate re­gard­ing mir­ror-ver­sus-mirrorless.

Canon, like its chief ri­val Nikon, re­mains solidly com­mit­ted to the D-SLR, although the mirrorless tide is def­i­nitely com­ing in on a wave of a steadily in­creas­ing choice of prod­ucts from a group of ‘heavy hit­ter’ brands. Olym­pus, Fu­ji­film, Sony, Pana­sonic and, most re­cently, Sam­sung are all tar­get­ing mirrorless mod­els at the pro­fes­sional user and all tout the same key benefits – chiefly smaller and lighter cam­era bod­ies and lenses. With the ex­cep­tion of Sony’s Al­pha 7 mod­els which have full-35mm size sen­sors, every­body else is us­ing the smaller ‘APS-C’ or Mi­cro Four Thirds imagers which al­low for even more dra­matic re­duc­tions in the size and weight of the hard­ware. Thanks to on­go­ing de­vel­op­ments in sen­sor ar­chi­tec­ture and the sub­se­quent pro­cess­ing of their out­put data, th­ese de­vices are de­liv­er­ing ever bet­ter per­for­mance even at the higher ISO set­tings. Th­ese imag­ing per­for­mance ca­pa­bil­i­ties are now more than suf­fi­cient for a great many ap­pli­ca­tions… cer­tainly for travel, street photography or ex­treme sports where, of course, the sav­ings in size and weight have ob­vi­ous benefits. And now that all the mirrorless mounts are pretty well served with ded­i­cated lens sys­tems, an­other D-SLR ad­van­tage is be­ing eroded.

So what is the ad­van­tage of hav­ing a re­flex mir­ror? Well, for starters, an op­ti­cal viewfinder. To­day’s EVFs are get­ting very good in­deed, but the op­ti­cal finder is, by de­fault, al­ways go­ing to be su­pe­rior and, with live view on the mon­i­tor, you can still have the benefits of an EVF such as the pre­view­ing of cap­ture set­tings. But is this re­ally enough to com­bat the al­lure of the mirrorless cam­eras? Hard to say which is prob­a­bly why Canon has de­cided to up the ante and give its next- gen EOS 5D a 50 megapix­els full-35mm sen­sor. It’s a num­ber cal­cu­lated to make head­lines and it’s likely to be unique to Canon D-SLRs – at least for a while – giv­ing it some all-im­por­tant lever­age against the mirrorless up­starts such as Sony’s Al­pha 7R. And 50 megapix­els is slap-bang in the mid­dle of dig­i­tal medium for­mat ter­ri­tory… where a 50 MP CMOS is cur­rently flavour of the month aboard prod­ucts, both backs and com­plete cam­eras, from all the pro­tag­o­nists.

Adopt­ing CMOS-type sen­sors has en­abled is­sues such as high ISO ca­pa­bil­i­ties to be ad­dressed in dig­i­tal medium for­mat sys­tems, but check out the rest of the EOS 5DS/DSr spec (fps, fo­cus points, me­ter­ing zones, video bit rates, etc, etc) and, of course, the ex­tent of the Canon EF lens sys­tem. Ahem! The 5DS is best de­scribed as be­ing mid-sized so it isn’t ex­actly com­pact, but it isn’t par­tic­u­larly bulky ei­ther… es­pe­cially com­pared to a DMF kit. Soooo… well, dig­i­tal medium for­mat does still have a key weapon left in its ar­moury, namely that big… is… er… still bet­ter, es­pe­cially when you see what the Pen­tax 645Z (tested in this is­sue) is ca­pa­ble of in terms of im­age qual­ity or check out the per­for­mance of, say, the Nikon D4S at ISO 6400. So we’re talk­ing the fun­da­men­tal benefits of big­ger pix­els here (dy­namic range, etc), but just as hap­pened with sheet film and, sub­se­quently roll­film, this is be­ing in­creas­ingly out­weighed (no pun in­tended) by many other fac­tors.

The Pen­tax 645Z is a lot eas­ier to han­dle and use than you might think, but the idea of lug­ging any big DMF kit around, es­pe­cially if it has to be car­ried any dis­tance (like through any ma­jor in­ter­na­tional air­port) is still daunt­ing… and likely to be an is­sue if you’re trav­el­ling on small air­craft.

It’s hardly in­con­spic­u­ous ei­ther – which is be­com­ing more of an is­sue th­ese days – which is why a lit­tle mirrorless cam­era starts to make more sense in many sit­u­a­tions. Mind you, Pen­tax has trimmed down one im­por­tant as­pect of its medium for­mat D-SLR – the price. In terms of bang for your buck, the 645Z is ar­guably the best value in any sen­sor for­mat or cam­era con­fig­u­ra­tion, although the EOS 5DSr might be about to steal that crown given it’s likely to be priced at un­der $3000. Or is the size-ver­sus-per­for­mance ‘sweet spot’ to be found in mirrorless cam­eras with full-35mm sen­sors? Sony has pretty well proved it with the Al­pha 7 mod­els and the ru­mour is that oth­ers may fol­low… how much sense would it make for Canon and Nikon to fol­low this route? Or what about a medium for­mat sen­sor in a mirrorless cam­era… a dig­i­tal ver­sion of the Mamiya 6 or Bron­ica RF645 per­haps?

The evo­lu­tion of the cam­era has al­ways been to­wards smaller and lighter, and to­day’s tech­nolo­gies al­low both to be achieved with­out un­duly com­pro­mis­ing ei­ther ca­pa­bil­i­ties or im­age qual­ity. The mirrorless revo­lu­tion is ac­tu­ally hap­pen­ing be­cause we want it to – it’s not just a whim of the cam­era man­u­fac­tur­ers – and be­cause, ul­ti­mately, more is achiev­able with fast and light­weight dig­i­tal cam­eras, es­pe­cially when shoot­ing in the field. We re­ally no longer have to feel guilty about not sweat­ing harder – both metaphor­i­cally and lit­er­ally – over our photography… no gain with­out pain and all that… be­cause tech­nol­ogy now does the heavy lift­ing, leav­ing us to con­cen­trate more on the cre­ative stuff. So, some­times, small is def­i­nitely bet­ter, but then 50 MP res­o­lu­tion in a mid-sized D-SLR may well be the best of all worlds… at least for now.

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